TV-Novosti, a non-profit operating the Russian state-controlled RT(formerly Russia Today) television networks and 38 associated RT YouTube channels, has been sued for copyright infringement by Business Casual, an American media company that creates documentary content, based on its use of clips of Business Casual's documentaries in its own videos posted to YouTube.
Business Casual creates short original historical documentaries which it posts to its YouTube channel. Its documentaries frequently feature photographs of historical figures, using a process called “parallax” which “transforms century-old low-resolution photographs into dramatically restored high-resolution photographs” and “turn[s] two-dimensional images into three-dimensional models . . . simulating a depth-of-field. This optical illusion provides Business Casual’s videos with an immersive three-dimensional look and feel.”
The lawsuit relates to two of Business Casual’s documentaries—“How Rockefeller Built His Trillion Dollar Oil Empire” and “J.P. Morgan Documentary: How One Man Financed America”—clips of which Business Casual alleges TV-Novosti incorporated into three separate videos on its "RT-Arabic" YouTube channel, including portions featuring parallax-enhanced images, altering the brightness and saturation of the copied content and replacing Business Casual's watermark with TV-Novosti's own in order to hide from YouTube's algorithms.
TV-Novosti moved to dismiss the copyright claims, arguing that it's use of the clips is protected as fair use. However, after considering each of the four statutory factors, Judge Koeltl of the Southern District of New York denied TV-Novosti's motion, holding that while three of the four factors weighed against finding fair use, "[t]he fourth factor, which the Supreme Court has described as 'the single most important element of fair use,' cannot be determined without further factual development."
Specifically, regarding the first factor, concerning the transformation of the use, Judge Koeltl found that while TV-Novosti's videos take portions of the plaintiff’s videos, re-arrange them, and add new commentary to them, TV-Novosti had not made any meaningful changes to the visual clips themselves, and "[m]erely overlaying new audio does not effect a sufficient transformation . . . to find fair use as a matter of law." The Court further noted that TV-Novosti had "not changed the purpose of the parallax-enhanced images," i.e., to provide visual illustration for the overlain audio commentary, but had instead "simply lifted the copyrighted depictions . .. for the purpose of illustrating [TV-Novosti's] own video." In addition, the Court found that the fact that TV-Novosti could have sought to pay for the clips, but didn't, and tried to hide its use of the excerpts from YouTube's algorithms, also weighed against a finding a fair use under the first factor.
Regarding the second factor, concerning the nature of the copyrighted work, the Court initially noted that factual material such as that at issue, "cuts less closely to the core of copyright." Nevertheless, the Court held that the fact that source material for Business Casual's videos was in the public domain weighed against finding fair use, because TV Novosti could have simply used public domain photos of the historical figures, rather than the modified clips, to create its videos.
Regarding the third factor, concerning the amount of use in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole, the Court noted that while only "small portions of the entire copyrighted works were used"—excerpts of 7 seconds, 1 minute and 28 seconds, and 8 minutes and 50 seconds in length—the portions were "not so trivial as to warrant dismissal under the de minimis doctrine."
Lastly, regarding the fourth factor, concerning the effect of the use on the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work, the Court noted that this factor “ask[s] not whether the second work would damage the market for the first (by, for example, devaluing it through parody or criticism), but whether it usurps the market for the first by offering a competing substitute.” With this framing, the Court thus found that while one the one hand, TV-Novosti's "videos are alternative ways of learning about the lives of J.P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller," on the other hand, they "have a broader focus and are in a different language, meaning that they cater to a different audience." These differences, the Court held, were significant enough to preclude the Court from "determining the effect of [TV-Novosti's] videos on the market for [Business Casual's] videos at this time."
The Court's recognition of the weight of the fourth factor in determining fair use means that there may still be hope for TV-Novosti—time (and fact discovery) will tell. For now, the takeaway may very well be that parties seeking to raise a fair use defense should take care to emphasize any characteristics of their use that distinguish not just their work, but its target audience, including the scope of the work and the language (if any) which communicates it.
Business Casual Holdings, LLC v. TV-Novosti, No. 21-CV-2007 (JGK), 2022 WL 784049 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 14, 2022)